Fundamentally, organic regulation worldwide is underpinned by the idea that you must work with the systems and cycles of nature, and you can’t take out more than you put in. It’s regenerative, some might say!
This means that businesses, consumers – and to an increasing extent governments and policy makers – have a way to support environmentally friendly and socially progressive systems of agriculture, with copper-bottomed legal safeguards underpinning them.
It’s clever, because creating a market mechanism for organic allows better practices to be supported even within our current broken economic system that otherwise fails to properly value people and planet.
You could call organic a shining example of an ‘oven-ready’ approach that expedites many of the increasingly urgent environmental and social changes that are needed to address the climate and ecological crisis. In this respect, standards and certification are a stand-out tool to achieve change.
Many have already realised this. The EU Commission has called for 25 percent of all farmland to be certified organic by 2030 as part of the European Green Deal, and Germany has just officially recognised organic as its model for sustainable agriculture.
But regulation isn’t the only tool in the box and doesn’t cover everything that the organic movement aspires to. It’s a floor, not a ceiling.
Many organic farmers and food businesses know this and are going well above and beyond the official ‘rules’ and have been innovating and blazing a trail for years, with organic principles as their guiding light.
The majority are in it because they have faith in its efficacy as a production system and the proof is right in front of their eyes and felt by them and their communities.
Increasingly, those organic farmers, food and fashion businesses going above and beyond organic have started to describe what they’re doing as regenerative, which makes sense, because the term implies something ‘more than’ and helps to convey a sense of a proactive, progressive and engaged action. But fundamentally, they’re still organic too.
Indeed, whilst organic enjoys legal safeguards that prevent the term being greenwashed, being a regulated term creates challenges for both newcomers and old hands.
Farmers starting out with organic practices, but who aren’t ready to go the whole hog, can feel excluded by the term ‘organic’.
Conversely, farmers going above and beyond organic regulation feel that the term organic doesn’t do enough to convey what they’re doing and the progress towards the principles that they’ve made. Somewhat counter-intuitively, regenerative appeals to both ends of the spectrum.
This is good news, we need a broad church, and we won’t achieve the changes we need to see by making the perfect the enemy of the good.
But we also need to make sure that regenerative drives real and meaningful change, and that it isn’t hijacked by those seeking to greenwash. So it must be underpinned by a clear vision and direction of travel if it’s to have the impact it seeks. Recognising organic farmers as regenerative is a good place to start.
Likewise, organic can learn a lot from regenerative too. Whilst the market-focus of organic has had a clear benefit and impact – it’s now worth over 120 billion euros, with 75 million hectares of land grown across 190 countries worldwide, progress with driving continuous improvement and influencing the rest of agriculture has been slow.
The bureaucracy of legislation has somewhat stalled the incremental progress towards greater fulfilment of organic principles. This is where the innovations of the regenerative agriculture movement can provide organic with a rocket boost.
The focus on metrics and monitoring as tools to help improve and optimise everything from carbon storage in soils to biodiversity on farmland offers the opportunity for organic farmers to not only measure the impact of what they do, but improve it still further.
There’s a lot to be gained from recognising the shared values and trajectories of organic and regenerative. Being truly regenerative means being organic, but likewise being truly organic means being regenerative too. They’re interlinked and are stronger and more meaningful together.
Many forward-thinking companies and organisations have already come to this conclusion themselves. Many of the leading advocates for regenerative agriculture in the UK also support organic.
The Regenerative Organic Alliance in the US has developed a certification scheme for regenerative that requires organic as a baseline. Closer to home, Yeo Valley’s recently launched Regenerative Organic Farming project is centred around organic practices.
Regenerative and organic must work hand in hand to achieve the changes we need to see in the world, and effectively address the crises of our times. Instead of reinventing the wheel, we must stand on the shoulders of giants.
Sarah Compson is associate director, standards innovation at the Soil Association.